Jeff Roberson, Associated Press
DUTCHTOWN, Mo. — Floodwaters leaking past an old earthen levee in this river town highlight a larger problem threatening much of rural America: Scores of flood walls built decades ago by farmers are increasingly susceptible to failure.
Many of the barriers are little more than piles of compacted dirt that were constructed without help from engineers, mainly to protect crops. Now they shield entire communities, and they are managed by local authorities who have little to no money for repairs.
"You build them to the levels that you hope are adequate," said Jeff Rolland, deputy police chief in Poplar Bluff, a southeast Missouri town of 17,000 people protected by just such a levee. "Unfortunately, extraordinary storms come along."
That's what happened this week after as much as 15 inches of rain fell on the region in four days, causing the Black River to climb out of its banks. The flood displaced more than 1,000 people and sent water over the Poplar Bluff levee.
The levee is one of more than 100 across the country considered by the federal government to be unfit for use. The failing levees are in 16 states, including five in Ohio, five in Louisiana and 16 in Washington. As still more rain fell Wednesday, all eyes were on the flood walls and the rising water.
The Reorganized Butler County No. 7 levee at Poplar Bluff failed a federal inspection in 2008. And the heavy rain took a swift toll, allowing water to seep through the levee, pour over the top in 35 places and gush through a hole in the middle of the barrier.
Many rural levees are privately maintained and overseen by local boards or commissions with limited expertise and resources. Even if the officials who oversee the Poplar Bluff levee had the money to fix it, the poor government rating makes them ineligible for federal assistance.
"It was dropped from the program," said Tony Hill, chief of the emergency management office for the Army Corps of Engineers office in Little Rock, Ark. "They were given a period of time, given a year to get things right. They are inactive in the program. They aren't eligible for federal dollars to fix the levee."
The quality of small-town levees varies greatly. Most are made of mounded dirt that has been sloped and then topped with grass to reduce erosion.
Others are more complex, with spillways, drainage systems and pumps. But for cities and private levee districts that are strapped for cash, levees are often little more than earthen berms, like the one at Poplar Bluff, about 130 miles south of St. Louis.
"People don't realize the levee is there until the water starts rising," said Tom Waters, chairman of the Missouri Levee and Drainage District Association. "The local districts do what they can, but sometimes it's cheaper to be out of compliance and fix it yourself than be in compliance."
A 2009 Army Corps survey identified 114 levees nationwide that were "unacceptable for operations and maintenance," including three others in Butler County, 30 in Arkansas and 27 in California. The survey lists structure from Alamosa, Colo., on the Rio Grande, to the Bethlehem levee in the Pennsylvania town of the same name.
Two years earlier, the federal agency found 122 levees in similar condition.
After Hurricane Katrina, Congress in 2006 gave money to the Army Corps to update its inventory of the federally maintained levees, which make up 14,000 miles of flood barrier across the nation.
But there's no systematic oversight — or even a complete inventory — of the nearly 100,000 miles' worth of private levees. Congress passed the National Levee Safety Act in 2007 and directed the Army engineers to account for all private levees, but no money was provided for the task.
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